Almost always, the great speech is also the right speech.
President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the eight other victims in Charleston was great and right.
We are accustomed these days to speeches from leaders and wannabe leaders that are mediocre and content-free, and if there is content it is calculated, self-serving, and passion-free. Welcome to this or mostly any other presidential contest.
Of course, Barack Obama is the exception to the run of the political mill. In fact his sometimes supernatural rhetoric ended up being a burden, as some wondered whether he was all talk and no action. Without getting into the measure of his still unfinished presidency, which this week looks pretty good, remember that under the right circumstances talk is also action, when action means talking about the thing that needs doing.
One remarkable aspect of the eulogy was the President’s use of pronouns. We and our, he repeated, and he did not mean we Americans. He meant we black Americans. In a situation that called for the highest leader and a black man, it so happens that the highest leader is a black man.
I’ve written before about my beloved Barbara Jordan, maybe the greatest American orator of the late 20th century, with multiple entries on the list of all time speeches. Before the eulogy, it may not have been clear where and if Obama belonged in that pantheon. If it wasn’t before, that has now been settled.
The eulogy was everything it could and should have been. It was a painting of a significant scene by a skilled and inspired artist. Like a great painting, it is more than even the greatest photograph can show us. Look here, he said, think about this, remember this, all the while appealing to the heart and soul of his audience and of the nation. We have watched hours of news coverage of the events in Charleston, reviewed and analyzed and opined upon. But the magic of a speech or a painting is that by adding words and pictures, the obstacles to our really seeing are removed, the scales fall away, and we look as if for the first time. And with that vision, maybe move on to act wisely and appropriately.